May 24, 2010

An artist in the super league of left-handers

If you're a South African born not later than the sixties, there'll only ever be one No. 4 for you

Graeme Pollock is in that elite corps of batsmen who looked elegant just sauntering two paces between deliveries and idly patting down the pitch. In really fanciful dreams you could imagine people paying good money to see that ludicrously limited aesthetic, and only that.

Yet Pollock was no curator, of course. He was rather higher up cricket's pecking order: a master craftsman, an artist in the super league of left-handers. His profound command and aura at the crease were unmistakable.

Among seasoned, cricket-loving residents of the Eastern Cape hub of Port Elizabeth are many who recall with huge fondness and awe Pollock's exploits at club level for Old Grey and how they flocked to witness this general of batsmanship canter into lopsided battle with the huffing and puffing mortals of the local Premier League.

The clubhouse landline would ring with rare monotony: "Are Grey batting?" "What's the score, please?" And particularly commonly and urgently: "Is Graeme in yet?" The surname was gloriously irrelevant.

This was not the stuff of indulgence, of half truth, distorted over the passage of time: the website of Grey High School, where Pollock had represented the 1st XI aged 13, contains an engrossing little confirmation in its "Sporting Legends" section:

"Graeme used to entertain many a Port Elizabeth enthusiast on a Saturday afternoon for Old Grey. Cars used to park all the way around the field and in many areas two, three or four deep. This prompted Dave Butlion (a prolific striker of the ball, who once hit six sixes in an over in club cricket), who batted at five and often had to go in after Pollock to say: 'I would walk to the crease with cars hooting to acknowledge another great Pollock innings; as I took guard the engines would start up, and by the time I scored my first run, the ground was once again empty'."

No. 4 in the order… ah yes, if you are a South African not born later than the Sixties, it is always tempting to brand it not numerically but by calling it unequivocally the "Pollock position" in a Test or provincial first-class landscape. In fairness, there may be a burgeoning modern school suggesting the "Kallis berth", while Daryll Cullinan served the post in attractive, dominating fashion as well, especially if Australia and their legspinner were engaged elsewhere.

But Robert Graeme Pollock was near-synonymous with it, as reflected by all but four of his 41 Test innings being at that station - including his debut in 1963 as a 19-year-old in Brisbane.

Even as he wound up his career at the advanced age of 43 in 1986-87, that slightly bandy-legged but purposeful walk to the crease - accompanied by whispers of excitement outside the ropes - came invariably at second-wicket-down for the fearsome Transvaal "Mean Machine" of the old Currie Cup, sandwiched as he often was between Alvin Kallicharran at No. 3 and the captain, Clive Rice.

For someone whose Test career was suddenly slammed shut at 26, as if with the exasperating purpose a post office might find at four o'clock sharp, Pollock's particularly elongated swansong era for Eastern Province and then Transvaal in an immensely strong and competitive domestic competition went at least a healthy distance in compensation.

"He was like the lucky guy you knew who never got the flu… somehow you always felt Pollock was over the ball; it never seemed to be over him"
Hylton Ackerman on Graeme Pollock

They used to advise that you had to snare Pollock early, perhaps jabbing at a lifter outside off stump, to head off a pasting. You could say that of so many batsmen, of course. As his vision dimmed a little, Transvaal's great rivals Western Province used to pin their hopes on big-chested fast bowler Garth Le Roux, renowned for rich harvests in Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, to dislodge him with a still-newish ball. But if Pollock negotiated this testing little hors d'oeuvre phase, the main course would invariably become a sumptuous dish with his signature splashed all over it.

To have seen notably more of his twilight years, as I did, than his heyday brought mixed emotions: delight at the opportunity to have got some crystal-clear appreciation of what the fuss had all been about in his apartheid-slashed Test career; regret that such a precisely weighted combination of power and gracefulness must have been oodles more pleasurable to the onlooker's eye while he was a younger man.

If Pollock had a hallmark place in the batting order, then he had a signature stroke too: his cover drive. He played it with relish and quite withering authority. Bam! If you were the bowler, maybe only negligibly errant in line and length, it was almost inevitably Goodnight Gertrude.

Pleasingly, the essence of it was far less an extravagant, indulgent follow-through - these days they might call it the bling licence in the shot - than it was his poetry-perfect body position as bat met ball and effectively sent it yelping like a puppy scalded by a tumbling pot of hot porridge. More often than not, a scampered two or three was unnecessary; four would be the sumptuous outcome, with the cover fieldsmen requiring no more than to await the return of the bruised apple from a rope-side steward or audacious schoolboy who'd vaulted the pickets.

Pollock would watch it on its way and barely move. Does that smack of arrogance? The question is posed at this juncture because a compelling aspect of his make-up, some contemporaries insist, is his modesty and even a surprising splash of insecurity.

Ali Bacher, Pollock's captain in the landmark 4-0 whitewash of Australia in 1969-70, clearly recognised the latter phenomenon. "It would have been all too easy to take such a great and consistent player for granted but Ali realised that Graeme, despite his stature in the game, required constant reassuring," wrote recently deceased author Rodney Hartman in Ali: The Life of Ali Bacher. "As a captain, he would also play up the 'threat' of Barry Richards to push Graeme into maintaining his position as the leading batsman."

How fitting, then, that Pollock and Richards - the latter widely considered South Africa's right-handed equivalent as a batting untouchable - were responsible between them for arguably the most enthralling one-hour passage of Test play by that country.

Word of mouth, newspaper cuttings or token flashes of wobbly newsreel are the lone conveyors of description of their assault on Australia after lunch on day one of the second Test against Bill Lawry's Aussies at Kingsmead in February 1970: television, you see, with its window to the wider and critical world, was deemed until 1975 a poisonous tool to be spared the minority white-led South African populace. But those who saw it are unanimous about the majestic destruction the two batsmen sowed on a visiting arsenal that included Garth McKenzie and Johnny Gleeson, plundering more than 100 runs in the heady period at a before-its-time rate of some six runs to the over.

Eddie Barlow, later out for one at No. 5, reputedly muttered that there was "no price" batting after Richards and Pollock's carnage. Richards made a scorching 140 at a strike-rate of 85 - that, too, rather a novel development then - while Pollock went on to a then-South African record 274 with 43 fours. Percentage of those boundaries through his most cherished covers is an elusive statistic, alas, with wagon wheels perhaps considered more synonymous then with the country's gritty Afrikaans Voortrekkers of the 19th century. The Wisden Almanack bears the following observation: "His concentration never wavered and he attacked continuously."

Pollock's combat against England tends to instantly brings up two words: Trent Bridge. In bluntest terms, the second of three Tests in 1965 - South Africa crucially won in Nottingham, eventually stealing the series 1-0 - was one of those where people just felt "privileged" to have seen Pollock in fullest cry.

The encounter was a massive triumph for the family name, with his fast-bowling brother Peter landing 10 wickets. But Graeme's first-innings 125 at not far off a run a ball, and under fairly precarious circumstances for his team, is carved deep in South African legend. The innings, punctuated by the gorgeously uncluttered mindset of 21-year-old Pollock, badly needed the disproportionate weight of his contribution: South Africa were bundled out well inside the first day for 269 after winning the toss. Captain Peter van der Merwe was second top-scorer with 38, and his fresh-faced partner Pollock wholly dominated their partnership of 98 for the stabilising sixth wicket, hogging 91 of those runs.

"He was like the lucky guy you knew who never got the flu… somehow you always felt Pollock was over the ball; it never seemed to be over him," the late Hylton Ackerman, standout coach and another South African left-hander who represented a World XI in 1971-72, once enthused to me.

Even in this era of Test batsmen being able to fill their boots at times against a battery of weaker nations, Pollock (60.97) remains second only to Don Bradman for highest career batting average.

All but one - New Zealand in Auckland in 1964 - of his 23 appearances came against either England or Australia, although of course he lives with the regret of never having faced the dustbowl wiles of Indian bowlers or chin music of the Caribbean's best shock bowlers.

Pollock was and is a notably deep respecter of cricket's heritage and etiquette. Always sensitive to the societal injustice around him at the height of apartheid's oppressive choke-hold, South Africa's officially branded cricketer of the last century stayed a generous step behind Dolly when he and Basil D'Oliveira, the iconic man of colour who had retreated to England to pursue his own Test career, took to the Newlands turf to open the World Cup of 2003.

A firm patriot, he never sought employment abroad at any stage of his career: it is strange to see "South Africa, Eastern Province and Transvaal" as his sole life ports in serious cricket.

Graeme Pollock may be 66, but in Port Elizabeth you can still almost picture people purposefully turning the keys of their Ford Anglias or Austin 1155s in suburban driveways. "C'mon, let's dash, dear… Graeme's just in for Old Grey."

Robert Houwing is chief writer for in South Africa and former editor of the Wisden Cricketer SA

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rick on May 26, 2010, 22:58 GMT

    @waspsting I agree that Tendulkar is a truly great batsman, but my observation has been that any discussions about him quickly get nationalistic. Not all fans of his do this, but certainly a very vocal few do. It seems impossible to honestly criticize his faults (and as I said, every great batsman has them) or realistically compare him with others. There are some who seem to go round posting on every forum that he's without a shadow of doubt the best batsman of all time (which is fine, it's their opinion), and also showing disrespect for past greats (which isn't fine). For the record, my favourite Test batsman of the recent past has been Dravid (fantastic defensive technique and also very stylish). Anyway, I hope this doesn't derail the Pollock discussions :-)

  • kent on May 26, 2010, 17:56 GMT

    It is quite disappointing to see Brian Lara categorised as the 3rd, 4th of the best ever lefthanders is an insult of the highest order, not just to Mr. Lara himself but to all West Indians and genuine followers of the game. There seems to be an insidious plan to somehow systematically neutralise the greatness of Brian Charles Lara. He remains the greatest of all batsmen, and not just the greatest of lefthanders. The fact that West Indies is no longer a force in world cricket, does not diminish the staggering expoits of this batting legend, and certainly is no justification to deliberately reduce him to this level. Thank goodness the facts are there for all to wander and ponder: HIghest Test score, twice removed, highest fisrst class score, only person to score 400 runs in a test, one of the best ever test innings (153 n.o. in Barbados agains the mighty Aussies) Brian was no statsminder but an entertainer of the purest level,many would flock to see himn perform. Lets Never forget him

  • Dre on May 26, 2010, 14:01 GMT

    I quite like this article, well written and quiet poetic. There should be more such articles on Cricinfo to help paint pictures to the many who didn't see these great former players play. Footage helps but these articles really adds something special. I quite like the discussion going as well, very informative and intellectual, very little fanaticism and really honest opinions. I hope to indulge in more such discussions. From footage and eye witness reports I do think that it is a very close race between Pollock and Sobers as the best ever left hander. It is a real shame that the crazy apartheid deprived Pollock of playing vs W.I. quicks, that would have been a real battle and I do believe Pollock would have won. I wouldn't say Lara had a weakness 2 quicks. I would say he was susceptible early in his knock but when in, he would paste them. Just like the 400* when he pasted the Ashes quartet(yes the deck was flat but hey 400!). I think he gets most his credit for style though like Gower

  • shafeen on May 26, 2010, 13:19 GMT

    Bert Sutcliff interesting case. He took a blow on the head and was never the same - but unhelmeted, I think Lara and Steve Waugh would have been the same (or they'd be dead). More kudos to Hutton for sticking out the short stuff sans helmet (I tend to give credit to the unhelmeted, rather than discredit the helmeted in general - Hutton scored heavily despite HATING the stuff, he even said it should be COMPLETELY banned - and I doubt if a bouncer barrage back then was what a bouncer barrage became in the 70s/80s - for e.g Compton only had a couple of bouncers aimed at him in scoring 180 odd against lindwall/miller/johnston). Lara was even worse in Pakistan (98?99? not sure of year)- very flat wickets (the Pakistan batsmen scored heavily, but he couldn't reach 50 in 6 innings). the back lift looks great, but against real pace, its more a liability. @Alfredmynn - completely agree with you about how it ultimately comes down to subjective liking and all players have relative weakness'

  • shafeen on May 26, 2010, 13:10 GMT

    the best I've seen is Tendulkar (sorry alfredmynn!). he plays all bowling in all conditions well - and he converts starts into 100s so consistently. Gavaskar i only saw after his prime, but his style was so easy and elegent, against all bowling. Richards I think is overrated a tad (though still great) - his team never lost because they were crazily strong, so he never came in for censure for being irresponsible (as he often was). I rate Sangakarra very highly also - unlike Ponting, Lara, Kallis etc. - he has the Tendulkar-ish ease-in-all-situations thing. and he scores as much as anybody. I rate Sobers very highly because he was so far ahead of his contemporaries. Many moderns records rival Tendulkar's - but Sobers is head and shoulders above his lot. Weekes, Walcott, Hutton (Gavaskar and Chappell too) aren't really of the same period - while Pollock played a lot less. Only Barrington's record is comparable. Kanhai, Cowdrey all way behind. (more)

  • shafeen on May 26, 2010, 13:02 GMT

    @ vinnigefanie - I'm a big fan of Hutton, too - he played the fast artistic stuff (on a lenght, moving in and out, in the air and of the wicket) from Lindwall and Miller, he got the short rough stuff from them too, and he played spin (o'reilly, ramadin, valentine, iverson) even on bad wickets as well as anyone. and this was after the change in LBW rules. Your choice of Dravid as one of the tops suggests we agree on another thing - valuing the "un-glamorous" player. Guys like Dravid, Kallis, Barrington and even Gavaskar don't get the credit they deserve. People remember the carnage that the Richards', Pollock and Sobers... but IMO, the steadier greats had an equal, though different mental effect on the game. If you saw Barrington come to the wicket, you thought "everything's okay now" or "Oh god, how do we get rid of him?" - and thats just as big a deal as "oh god, he might take the attack apart right now". Still, even 'experts' often forget them and remember Lara, Weekes or Viv (more)

  • Robert on May 25, 2010, 21:04 GMT

    I daresay there could be five or six all-time great XIs, all competitive with one another and the same could apply to great left-handers. I saw both Sobers and Pollock, as well as Harvey, Clive Loyd, Gower and Lara. It's hard to choose between Sobers and Popllock. I saw Sobers make 183 for RoW v Eng in 1970 and 150* for WIv E in 1973, as well as a good number of other big scores (and of course various Test centuries on TV). Pollock I saw fewer times but what I saw will stay in the memory for ever - as to be fair will Sobers. Pollock, as the article states batted 4 but Sobers usually went in lower - 6 or 7 - and received some criticism for doing so. He had his bowling as well. I'd be more than happy to have both in my team!!! I heard Fred Trueman say in the 80s that he considered Pollock the greatest batsman he had ever seen. In his case a fair statistical exercise might be to compare him with others at the age of 26, at his last Test, or even 23 when only 4 remained.

  • Rick on May 25, 2010, 19:01 GMT

    Some real history buffs posting on this page instead of the usual 'sachin rox everyone else sux' posts. @waspsting, your ranking looks good given the amount of top-class cricket Lara played versus Pollock. Sobers is the best of all lefties however you look at it, but personally I find Pollock even more exciting to watch than Lara. His sheer power + exceptional timing, and ability to judge length were out of the world. Have never seen Harvey bat, but the way he dealt with Tyson when the latter was literally as fast as a typhoon iin '54 must have been something to watch. I hope Cricinfo does a 'Legends' episode on him. @vinnigefanie - some great points there. Mentioning Bert Sutcliffe was especially thoughtful as he certainly belongs in the league of very fine left-handers. Finally, I think separating batsmen who have reached such rarefied heights comes down to personal choice because they all have minor statistical flaws if you dig deep enough!

  • Emile on May 25, 2010, 15:51 GMT

    There is one left-hander who Keith Miller rated ahead of Lara and alongside Harvey and Morris and that is another New Zealander who Martin Donnelly, a small man like Lindsay Hassett, but such a brief career and plus 50 average with all tests against England. Miller rated him as the finest left-hand batsman of the early post-war era that he bolwled to with Harvey and Morris neck and neck. Pollock wasn't allowed to play Packer as he wasn't a county player, unlike Richards, Rice and Procter and apartheid South Africa was not the most popular country in those days. I realise that Houwing (on rereading) doesn't say Pollock is the greatest, it is the headline that is misleading. Yet the three top batsmen for me are all right-handers: Hutton, Dravid and Richards, with I guess Sobers fittinng in there as well. Having watched cricket at Leeds when young has had its benefits; there has never be a batsman as Hutton to handle wet conditions as he did: The Oval 1948, Brisbane 1950. A true master.

  • Emile on May 25, 2010, 15:29 GMT

    @Waspsting, thanks for the great feedback; it is always good, and enhances the debate when we are reading from the same page and understand that we are discussing great as opposed to good. Agreed, the Lara fans will hate us for saying that he was soft against good fast bowling. His 1998/99 tour of South Africa exposed him and it was all about Brian Lara and not the team. And agree, if you want guys who would bat for your life, Border and the often forgotten Kepler Wessels. Morris often had to contend with wet wickets in England in 1948, his first tour, there was something sublime about him. Cardus rated the New Zealander Sutcliffe ahead of Harvey, but he was undone in South Africa by Adcock and was never the same. I would place Harvey at three behind Sobers and Pollock, and Sutcliffe at 4, and Morris with Border and Greg Chappell and Lara, Gower and Wessels in that order. My Sutcliffe at 4 won't go down too well with some Aussies. but we are looking at a player from a (continued)

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